Information on the Nature and Costs of Cleanup Activities at Three Landfills in the Gulf Coast Region

GAO-11-287R: Published: Feb 18, 2011. Publicly Released: Feb 18, 2011.

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Carolyn L. Yocom
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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that one in four Americans lives within 3 miles of a contaminated site, many of which pose serious risks to human health and the environment. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) provided the federal government with authority to respond to releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances and created a trust fund to provide for certain cleanup activities. Under CERCLA, EPA established the Superfund program to address the threats that contaminated sites pose. Although EPA has paid for the cleanup of many of these sites through the Superfund program, funding for these cleanups has diminished in recent years. In 2010, we reported that EPA's estimated costs to clean up existing contaminated sites exceed the Superfund program's current funding levels and that some sites have not received sufficient funding for cleanup to proceed in the most cost-efficient manner. Additionally, in July 2009, we reported that EPA does not collect sufficient information on the cost of cleanup activities at Superfund sites and recommended, among other things, that EPA assess and improve the data it collects on the status and cost of cleanups. EPA coordinates the cleanup of Superfund sites by identifying sites potentially requiring cleanup action and placing eligible sites on its National Priorities List (NPL). EPA may compel the parties responsible for contaminating these sites to clean them up, or the agency may, using resources from the trust fund established by CERCLA, conduct cleanups itself and seek reimbursement from responsible parties. In some cases, EPA may not be able to obtain reimbursement because the agency cannot identify a responsible party or the responsible party or parties may be insolvent or may no longer exist. One category of contaminated sites--landfills and other waste disposal facilities--made up more than one-third of the 1,397 sites EPA placed on the NPL from 1983 through 2007, and EPA's expenditures at these 511 sites totaled about $3.6 billion through fiscal year 2007. According to EPA, landfill sites on the NPL generally share similar characteristics and present similar threats to the environment. For example, these sites generally exhibit contamination in various media, such as soil, surface water, or groundwater, and many landfills at Superfund sites contain hazardous waste that may contaminate nearby soil or water. Further, some have argued that landfills used for the disposal of debris created by disasters may also contain hazardous waste that could have long-term, negative environmental impacts. Consequently, concerns have been raised by various studies and environmental groups about the potential for such landfills to become Superfund sites. For instance, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a Louisiana emergency order authorized some potentially hazardous materials to be disposed of in landfills permitted to receive construction and demolition debris rather than in landfills with liners approved for such waste. Studies by a Louisiana State University research institute and an environmental engineering firm found that these categories of waste can introduce hazardous materials into landfills, increasing the likelihood of pollution. In this context, Congress asked us to review issues related to the cost to clean up the Agriculture Street Landfill Superfund site, which received debris from Hurricane Betsy in 1965, and other Superfund sites involving landfills in the Gulf Coast region where cleanup has been completed. Our objectives were to determine (1) what is known about the nature and costs of the cleanup activities at Superfund landfill sites and (2) the costs to clean up the Agriculture Street Landfill site and two additional selected Superfund landfill sites in the Gulf Coast region, and the key factors that influenced these costs.

While cleanup activities at Superfund landfills depend largely on the nature and extent of the contamination at each site, these activities generally include extraction, treatment, and containment. Extraction is the removal of contaminated substances from a site. At landfill sites, extraction may involve excavating contaminated soil and other landfill contents from the site and disposing of these materials at an off-site facility that is permitted to receive such products. According to EPA, extraction is the most expensive cleanup approach used at Superfund landfill sites. Treatment is the reduction of contaminated substances at a site and involves processing contaminated media, either on- or off-site, to reduce the toxicity, mobility, or volume of contamination. For example, EPA and responsible parties may remove groundwater from a Superfund site and chemically process it to remove contaminants at an off-site facility, or they may install a system at the site to treat the contaminated water in place. While treatment is a lower-cost alternative to extraction, it is a high-cost cleanup approach. Finally, containment involves leaving contaminated media on-site and installing measures to prevent human exposure to hazardous substances. For instance, containment at a Superfund landfill site may include installing a cover over landfill contents and establishing institutional controls, such as legal access restrictions, to limit exposure to the contaminated material. Containment is generally the least expensive method of addressing Superfund landfills. Limited data are available on the actual costs of cleanup activities conducted at Superfund landfill sites for two main reasons. First, EPA does not maintain a central tracking system for the costs of such cleanup activities. While EPA tracks its expenditures at Superfund sites, this information does not include the cost associated with each cleanup activity conducted at a site. Rather, EPA's Superfund cost information focuses on the total cost of each contract under which multiple cleanup activities may have been conducted. Second, cost data are limited because no requirements exist for responsible parties--including private companies, states, and local governments--to maintain or disclose their cleanup costs at Superfund sites. Private companies generally consider their cleanup costs as information that they have a right to keep confidential. While state and local governments are generally required to collect cleanup cost data under public accounting standards, these standards generally do not address maintenance of the data. While only limited cleanup cost data are available, we estimated that the costs to clean up three Superfund landfill sites in the Gulf Coast region--the Agriculture Street, Beulah, and Taylor Road landfill sites--ranged from about $13 million to about $55 million. This range is largely the result of differences among the sites in such factors as site geology and proximity to residential areas.

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